Thursday, June 22, 2017

Raven Stratagem - Yoon Ha Lee

One of the most exciting novels I read last year was Yoon Ha Lee's Ninefox Gambit. It offered fast-paced space opera combined with a strange mathematical system that governs space travel, and society. Between the action, Lee has a thing or two to say about totalitarian states and oppression as well. Ninefox Gambit is the opening volume in his Machineries of Empire trilogy. The second book, Raven Stratagem, was released this month. This sequel pick up the story directly after the end of the first novel, but takes a slightly different approach. One would almost say a more conventional one.

General Jedao, long dead military genius and war criminal, has been set loose on the universe again. With the Hexarchie threatened by the Hafn, there is a job to do. But Jedao is dangerously unstable, unpredictable and not adverse to killing large numbers of people. When he takes over a fleet of spaceships, the Hexarchs get worried. Jedao is quickly outlawed but that doesn't break his command over the fleet. With an external enemy ready to strike, an internal conflict reaching a boiling point and a rogue general on the loose, it is hard to see how the conflict can be resolved without massive loss of life. Nevertheless, some parties are trying to achieve just that.

Raven Stratagem is not as heavy on space battles as its predecessor. There are a few to be sure, but most of the book deals with political manoeuvring. Where the reader gets thrown into the middle of the story in Ninefox Gambit, in this book we get to see much more of the political structure of the empire. It is a system everybody involved feels is rotten to the core. Every generation it becomes crueller, more violent and less tolerant. It takes more and more effort to keep within the narrow boundaries of calendrical orthodoxy. It is an empire rapidly approaching the breaking point.

One of the more interesting aspects of the novel is that most of the faction leaders seem to be perfectly aware of the weakness of the empire and its slow, long descent into madness. Most of them are not prepared to change the tiniest bit in face of this problem. Keeping their position is more important. To raise the stakes a bit further, the novel explores immortality. It is within reach for Hexarchy elite. The price for society as a whole, would be considerable though. Imagine having your leadership staying in place for centuries, slowly going mad, without even the possibility that at some point they will snuff it and let someone else have a go. The hexarchs are not a cheery bunch, that's for sure.

Most of the story was told from Cheris' point of view in the previous novel. In Raven Stratagem, Jedao/Cheris is not a point of view character. We get to see quite a lot of the general through the eyes of others though. Lee cleverly uses other points of view to show us what formation instinct, an effect of the calendrical system that ensures loyalty in the Kel soldiers, works on an individual scale. Loyalty, it would appear, is more complex than the mathematician who designed the calendar seems to have imagined.

What has remained constant in these books is the oppressive nature of the society Lee describes. The almost casual way in which populations are subjected to horrible violence for even the minutest deviation from the norm is terrifying. More than once characters mention how they do not relish having to kill large numbers of people, but do so anyway. They seem to think their actions are inevitable, even when faced with the evidence of the flaws in the system. Part of the machine that somehow robs them of initiative and absolves them of personal responsibility. Lee's parting shot in this novel is particularly poignant in that light.

The pace of the novel is perhaps a tad lower than the first book in the series. Apart from taking the time to show the reader a bit more of the hexarchate, Lee is also building up for the third volume. I wouldn't go so far as to say the novel suffers from middle book syndrome however, it has a strong story arc and definite climax of its own. It is clear that there is more to come though. One thing I wondered about at the end of the novel is the circular nature of the calendar, and what that implies for the future of the empire.

All things considered, Raven Stratagem is a worthy successor to Ninefox Gambit. It is fast and lean space opera. A dark and grim story. The kind of novel that does not coddle the reader, but challenges to look beyond the explosions and window dressing, and explore such themes as the dark side of human social structures, and the meaning of loyalty and humanity in the face of immortality. This trilogy is looking better and better. I already look forward to the third volume.

Book Details
Title: Raven Stratagem
Author: Yoon Ha Lee
Publisher: Solaris
Pages: unknown
Year: 2017
Language: English
Format: E-ARC
ISBN: 978-1-78618-046-9
First published: 2017

Monday, June 12, 2017

Tempo - Steph Swainston

Note: this text is only available in Dutch translation. I am not aware of any plans to publish it in English.

In September 2016, I read Het Rad van Fortuin, the first story written by Steph Swainston of the Splinters series. Splinters are thin paperbacks published by Dutch publisher Quasis one can read in an hour or so. Most of them are written by local talent but some are translations. They are just long enough to give the reader a good impression of an author's style and talent, and evoke a sense of curiosity in the reader about the author's other work. In Swainston's case it worked quite well. Het Rad van Fortuin was the first piece I read by Swainston. Since picking it up, I read four of her novels. When I heard a second Splinter from Swainston was about to be released, I just had to go fishing for a review copy. The publisher kindly provided me with one.

In Het Rad van Fortuin, we are shown a young Jant, one of the main characters in Swainston's Castle series. For this story she chooses a different character. Saker is the immortal Archer, serving emperor San in his fight against the insects. He is scarred by battle, but perhaps even more by his turbulent love life. In this story, he looks back fifteen centuries, on his first major romance, and on the day his jealous older brother tried to put him in his place during a high stakes chariot race.

Games, in some shape or other, are a staple of fantasy. The climax of Raymond E. Feist's first novel Magician is set during elaborate gladiatorial combat, and George R.R. Martin describes jousting tournaments frequently in his ongoing A Song of Ice and Fire series. Chariot races, the subject Swainston tackles here, are also well trodden territory. In The Birthgrave, the novel that would be her breakthrough, Tannish Lee describes a particularly hazardous variety. Guy Gavriel Kay even wrote a duology massively influenced by the culture surrounding the chariot races in Byzantium.

There is a good reason chariot races keep coming back in fantasy. They make for very exciting action scenes. Tempo is no exception to that. The young Saker is a bit of a hothead and he is in love on top of that. It is easy to manipulate him into a situation where he might easily lose his life. Swainston is not just aiming for an exciting scene though. What the story really is about is accepting the consequences of immortality. The love he pursues is one with a huge social taboo attached to it. Do you want to carry that with you for eternity? Is living forever worth losing a lover over?  They are facing hard choices indeed.

Saker as the main character is the perfect choice for this story. In the books we get to see him as a bit of a tragic figure, bent by the burden of his immortality. In this story, he is young, rash, stubborn and a bit cocky. We can already see the outline of his larger than life presence in the Castle though. His tendency to get himself involved in all sorts of dramatic events is clearly present. It fits perfectly with what we know of him from the novels.

Like Het Rad van Fortuin, Tempo can be read on its own, but it clearly invites the reader to dig further into Swainston's work. The dilemma Saker faces is the centre of a nicely contained story. For the reader who is more familiar with Swainston's writing, there are plenty of details that link the story to the wider world of Castle. Given the idea behind the Splinters series, Tempo is a success. It reminded me that I really ought to dig up a copy of Above the Snowline, the only novel Swainston has published I haven't read yet.

Book Details
Title: Tempo
Author: Steph Swainston
Publisher: Quasis
Pages: 42
Year: 2017
Language: Dutch
Translation: Jasper Polane and Pen Stewart
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-94-92099-26-6
First published: 2017

Monday, June 5, 2017

After Atlas - Emma Newman

Emma Newman's After Atlas (2016) is set in the same universe as Planetfall (2015). That book turned out to be one of the top reads of 2016 (I got to it late) and so the sequel jumped right to the top of my to read list. A position it held for an unreasonable length of time. Once again I am late in reading this book. The novel is set in the same universe, but the connection with the first book is minimal. They can be read independently of each other just fine. Although the novel is quite different from Planetfall, it has the same attention the characterization and psychology as the previous book. If you liked that one, After Atlas is a must read.

Many years ago the Atlas project left Earth in search of a new home. Only a few people managed to secure a place on board, to escape the overcrowded, hyper-commercialized planet. Carlos' mother was one of them. His father, who did not manage to beat the last round of the selection procedure, is left a broken man. He seeks refuge with an American religious cult. Many years later Carlos has escaped the clutches of the cult and has become a detective with a European government/corporation. When the leader of the cult he fled those many years ago is found dead and butchered in a hotel room in England, Carlos is put on the case. The investigation will bring up a lot of old hurts, and take him far beyond catching a regular murderer.

The setting of Newman's second Atlas novel is a future Earth. It is something of a dystopia. The distinction between governments and corporations has faded, and just about everything is turned into a commercial transaction. Information technology is employed to achieve a staggering level of surveillance on the general population. The only thing that can get you away from that is money. Huge sums of it. Information technology is integrated into society in a way that makes living without it almost inconceivable. Every aspect of the story is drenched with the possibilities of big data, how to use and abuse it, and how to avoid it. Even labour contracts are enforced 24/7 by employers, creating what amounts to a new form of slavery in the eyes of Carlos. The depiction of how technology might develop is depressingly realistic considering how much data is already being collected over the Internet. Once it is integrated into our bodies, privacy will only become harder to come by.

Even in this Big Brother future, it is possible to be murdered without a camera observing it though. Carlos still employs techniques to research the murder that a detective from a hundred years ago would recognize. Interrogation and looking for a motive are still key to the investigation. Perhaps it is because of the huge quantity of data available to him, that Carlos first needs a lead, an idea of where to look for the needle in the haystack. To him, knowing which questions to ask is critical to a successful investigation. His intuition and reasoning guide him more than all the technology at his disposal. It is this intuition that will get him in trouble eventually. Carlos can't stand loose ends. He keeps digging, even when he is told to stop.

Carlos is a man with more than a few issues. His job has made him a minor celebrity and the media often portray him as abandoned by his mother, the ultimate sin for a woman if they are to be believed. His anger is directed at his father however. A man who couldn't handle his failure. He neglected Carlos for years before entering the sect. When confronted with people from his past, the anger and resentment threaten to boil over on several occasions. Newman carefully reveals bits of his past to gradually expose his psyche to the reader. Through his problematic relationship with his father, his issues with food, and his problems forming social ties, a picture emerges of a man badly scarred by life, but with a strong sense of justice and self-preservation. He is at times desperate, and at the point of giving up, but always manages to make himself ask the next question. Just like Ren in the previous novel, Carlos is a well developed character. One that can carry the story.

The plot, in my opinion, was not as strong as the one in the previous novel. The investigation keeps things moving along nicely, but Carlos is forced to wrap that up with quite a bit of the book still to go. There are unanswered questions of course, questions Carlos' boss would rather not ask. But with a case that is as personal as this one, Carlos can't let go even if he wanted to. The section of the novel that follows feels rushed. Where the investigation is methodical and well-paced, the climax of the novel stuffs in a highly emotional reunion and a worldwide conspiracy. Carlos has to make some cognitive leaps that seem at odds with the steady progress of checking and eliminating he does early on in the novel. Maybe the contrast is intentional. The novel moves from all business to strictly personal after all. I didn't think it was quite convincing though.

Despite the rushed ending, After Atlas is a very good read. Newman creates another marvelously developed character with this novel. At the end of it, she also creates some interesting options for further stories in this universe. I have no idea if she intends to write a third novel, but the potential is certainly there. After Atlas is perhaps not the most uplifting novel, but it is one that is intelligently written and on the character level deeply moving. Planetfall is probably my favourite by a minimal margin, but After Atlas is a worthy sequel.

Title: After Atlas
Author: Emma Newman
Publisher: Roc
Pages: 365
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-425-28240-3
First published: 2016

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Neutronium Alchemist - Peter F. Hamilton

Last October I read Peter F. Hamilton's The Reality Dysfunction on a trip to my girlfriend's family in Norway. These books are ideal for travel. Huge but not taking up too much space in the suitcase. Although I was not overly impressed with the first novel in the Night's Dawn trilogy, my compulsion not to leave series unfinished kicked in so I decided to give him another shot. The Neutronium Alchemist is most certainly not free of the things that annoyed me in the previous novel, but I must admit it is as compulsively readable as the first one. It is still bloated though. In fact, the page count of this volume is even higher than that of the previous book. This series could have been so much better if it had been a bit leaner.

The dead are returning from a horrible limbo called the beyond and take over the living's bodies. The souls of these possessed are locked away in the recesses of the mind, always aware, but unable to influence matters. This horrible fate is bad enough, but the returned dead are also able to manipulate matter in ways science can't explain. They are extraordinarily powerful and have no intention of leaving or dying again. Faced with the double threat of an invasion of angry deceased and religious turmoil caused by the revelation of a horrible afterlife, the various factions try to pull together and come up with a strategy to deal with the greatest existential crisis in human history.

The situation is quite dire at the beginning of this novel. Possessed are overtaking one planet after another, usually wrecking them in the process. They are far from unified though. To illustrate that, Hamilton gives us three major points of view of possessed characters. Two of them are historical figures. Al Capone, whose syphilis wracked mind resumes to working order after being inserted into a healthy body. He has no clue how society developed since his death, but what he does understand is power. Soon he becomes a force to be reckoned with. Christian Fletcher, the Bounty mutineer, is pretty much his opposite. Well mannered and thoughtful where Capone is crude and decisive, he has quite a different view on what the possessed ought to be doing in the universe. A third, more chaotic point of view is presented by Kiera Salter, who is locked in a struggle for power with the mind of a habitat in orbit around a gas giant.

There is another possessed with a big role in the story. Quinn is turning into the Gollum of the series. He is clearly evil, but not aligned with any of the parties. He is in fact so purely bad that he is by far the most boring character in the book. He will use and discard anyone and anything to get nearer to his goal, which appears to be turning Earth into a satanic planet. Where Capone is building something, corrupt as it may be, Quinn just leaves destruction in his wake and doesn't look back. I hope Hamilton will find a better use for this character in the next book.

On the other side of the conflict it would appear most of the characters are busy chasing what appears to be a side plot. Captain Calvert is busy chasing a rogue scientist who knows the location of a weapon so powerful it can snuff out whole suns. He has half the intelligence officers of several other human factions on his tale. While I don't doubt this weapon, The Alchemist as the characters call it, will be important somehow in the next book, it seems like Hamilton is spending an awful lot of words on it while there are clearly other pressing matters to attend to. One good thing about this quest is that Calvert is too busy to have sex though. The apparently inevitable sex scenes are moved to Capone's sections, which I have to admit is somewhat in character, if still very much a male fantasy.

What bothered me most about the plot is how Hamilton tiptoes around the big philosophical questions his premise raises. There is a proven afterlife and apparently it isn't pretty. The two main branches of humanity each face their own challenges. The Adamists take their name from the patriarch of the large monotheistic relations. Their holy books will require some rewriting. The Edenists view death differently. They digitalize their personality and live on in the Edenist habitats. If their souls end up in the beyond anyway, what does that mean for the programming they leave behind? There is some interesting material here to explore and yet pretty much every character consciously ignores these questions. You'd think that somewhere in the 1,200 pages of this novel, a bit of reflection on these things could have been inserted. It would certainly have added a bit of depth to the novel.

Hamilton raises the stakes in The Neutronium Alchemist, as a middle book is supposed to do. It does more or less suffer from the same problems as the previous novel though. Bloated, repetitive and not very demanding. Although Hamilton tries to make it a multi-faceted conflict, he avoids the really big issue in the story in favour of politics and battles. That might be fine with some readers. I would have liked a little more from this novel but after The Reality Dysfunction, that was hardly what one could expect. Another beach read then. I think I will save the final volume for the next trip abroad.

Book Details
Title: The Neutronium Alchemist
Author: Peter F. Hamilton
Publisher: PAN Books
Pages: 1,273
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-4472-0858-7
First published: 1997

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The House of Binding Thorns - Aliette de Bodard

The House of Binding Thorns is the second novel in Aliette de Bodard's Dominion of the Fallen setting. It is not a sequel exactly. Both books can be read independently from each other. Madeleine and Philippe, two major characters from the previous novel The House of Shattered Wings, play an important role in this novel though. You will definitely get more out of the book if you have read them both. Readers who liked The House of Shattered Wings will want to read this one. It has all the elements that made the previous book a great read. Structurally it might even be a shade better.

House Hawthorn is led by the devious Fallen Asmodeus. He seems to be firmly in control, but the power of a House needs constant attention. By reaching out to the Vietnamese Dragon Kingdom, located under the surface of the murky river Seine, he hopes to gain even more power. The magic of the Dragon Kingdom is completely different from that of the Fallen. It offers opportunities, but there is danger in magic you don't fully understand too. Things get even more complicated when it becomes apparent that both House Hawthorn and the Dragon Kingdom are not as unified as they appear to be.

The setting is of course still the ruined Paris introduced in the first book. A city frozen in the remains of the Belle Epoque after a magical war destroyed it. Perhaps it was the absence of the dramatic ruins of the Notre Dame in this book but, I felt the author went a little easier on the worldbuilding. The setting is still instrumental in creating an atmosphere of desperation though. Paris is a dreadful and dangerous mess where people are trying to make life continue as best as they can. Including politics and petty struggles for power. People do not stop being people because of a magical Armageddon.

The story is one of two local powers in conflict. We get to see it from three sides though. Madeleine is dragged back into House Hawthorn after an absence of twenty years. She is forced to do Asmodeus' bidding but he clearly doesn't trust her. Her sense of decency and lack of subtlety get her in trouble quickly. Philippe, the other character introduced in the previous book is now houseless and seeks refuge in Goutte d'Or, the Vietnamese quarter of this alternate Paris. There, he meets the pregnant Françoise and her Fallen lover Berith. They soon find themselves caught in the power struggle initiated by Asmodeus' bold move. The Dragon Kingdom's position is mostly shown through the point of view of Thuan, a dragon prince sent to House Hawthorn to spy. His position will drastically change over the course of the novel.

House Silverspires, the focal point of the previous novel, was not always a pleasant place. It was a house that, even when desperate, showed the tiniest bit of humanity even when making ruthless decisions. That cannot be said of Hawthorn. Asmodeus rules by putting fear into his subjects. Every time he had a scene I could almost hear Mick Jagger sing "Please allow me to introduce myself, I'm a man of wealth and taste.." The way De Bodard lets control slip away from him in the novel is very well done and, at some level, very satisfying. He is as good as creepy characters get. There is quite a bit of biblical symbolism in his acts and dialogue too.

In a way, this novel is not just a clash between two houses, but also a clash between two world views. Françoise and Philippe show us what the bitter legacy of colonialism is. While life in a House is not easy, the predominantly Vietnamese Houseless gathered in Goutte d'Or live in destitute poverty. Here and there, De Bodard also mentions people from other parts of the French colonial empire. We're not meant to forget the multi ethnic composition of the city. Something the climax of the novel will emphasize once again.

The clash between the Judeo-Christian mythology the Fallen derive their power from, and the Khi derived from Vietnamese mythology, is something of a metaphor for many conflicts going on in the world right now. The text poses the question how we want to handle conflicts between various world views. Domination, cultural imperialism, peaceful coexistence, cold war, alliances and synergy all come up in this novel. De Bodard explores how these world views affect each other, how they chafe, how one could destroy the other in a conflagration or through a gradual breaking down of cultural values. In the end, the surviving characters realize they will have to make it work somehow. Let's just hope the world will not have to pay the price this realisation has extracted from De Bodard's ruined Paris.

I generally enjoy De Bodard's work, both stylistically and because of the themes she uses, and this novel is no exception. I thought the plot of this novel flowed a bit more smoothly than that of the House of Shattered Wings. It is dark and desperate, full of characters overreaching in an effort to prevent what little they have managed to salvage from destruction slipping from their grasp. It tackles some of the problems of today's society with a touch of Victor Hugo and a bit of magic. It blends the Christian power of sacrifice and redemption with the eastern flow of life force and sense of duty. It is a novel that has a lot to offer. One of those books that will yield more on a reread. The House of Binding Thorns was high on the to read list for this year and fully lived up to my expectations. Not many books manage to do that.

Book Details
Title: The House of Binding Thorns
Author: Aliette de Bodard
Publisher: Ace
Pages: 356
Year: 2017
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-451-47739-2
First published: 2017

Monday, April 24, 2017

New York 2140 - Kim Stanley Robinson

In his previous novel Aurora (2015) Robinson tackled a well known science fiction trope, that of a sub-lightspeed generational space ship, designed to hold enough people and supplies to survive a voyage of centuries and establish a colony on a new planet. His conclusion is sobering. Taking a human out of the environment they evolved in, Robinson claims, will almost certainly lead to extinction. Our bodies are so attuned to our environment and the organisms we share it with that survival, even elsewhere in the solar system, will be an almost insurmountable challenge. His message to humanity is clear. There is no Earth 2, try not to break the one we do have. Given this message, it is not surprising Robinson returns to Earth for his next novel. New York 2140 is set, as the title suggests, in the Big Apple a dozen decades from now. In that time a lot has changed, but in some respects, the city remains much the same.

In two separate cataclysmic events the sea level rose fifty feet. Coastlines around the world were flooded and many people have been displaced. New York is partially under water but this is not enough for people to abandon the city. The city has adapted to life in a partially submerged city. Many of the skyscrapers are still inhabited and innovative ways to connect them have been developed. One such building with its feet in the water is the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower. Once the tallest building in the city, it is now into its third century and run as a cooperation of the inhabitants. The disappearance of two men living in the building is the first of a series of events that will challenge the inhabitants of the building and the city greatly.

It is clear from the start the same ingenuity and imagination that brought the red planet to life in stunning detail in the Mars trilogy is at work here. Robinson has done his homework on the city and it shows in many details. From the geography of the region to the layout of the city, all of it is worked into this semi-submerged future New York. Quite a bit of attention went into what the new conditions would do to infrastructure as well. The tidal zone in particular is hard on steel and concrete. Robinson's research into the city didn't stop there. He pays attention to the legal status of the coastline as well, which has very interesting implications for the story, and he takes an interest in the history of the city. Many obscure, sometimes funny, little details about the city precede each shift in point of view. I'm not sure what a native would make of it, but for an outsider the setting works very well.

Given the description on the inside flat and the striking cover, you would be forgiven for thinking this book is about climate change. You would also be wrong. Climate change is a given in the novel. The city has for the most part adapted. The mechanism Robinson uses to explain this rapid sea level rise is considered not terribly likely, but it does fit the requirements for the story. What he really wants to discuss in this novel is global finance. New York is the self-proclaimed capital of capital, and even fifty feet of water is not enough to wash that away. The characters are very much aware of it and discuss the state of global finance, neoliberal economic theory and the economy of the US in detail. Robinson has never shied away from using the social sciences in his books, but to my knowledge this is the first time he goes into economics this extensively.

The way he goes about it is very interesting. While the characters debate the economy as a whole, how global finance works and how wealth is distributed, the story itself focusses of the effects on a much smaller scale. Capital has fled the city when it flooded. Much of the real estate was wrecked and deemed a total loss. Years of human ingenuity and advances in material science has shown investors how there might still be money to be made. Soon, the cooperation finds itself under pressure to sell to an unknown bidder. When money is not enough, other means are employed. Through the characters we get the rationale of why capital behaves this way, while showing us the effect in intimate detail.

Robinson uses quite a large cast to tell his story, no fewer than eight different points of view. One of them is simply named 'a citizen'. Robinson uses this citizen to speak to the reader directly. His writing is often criticised for containing large sections of scientific theory, usually related as an interior monologue (or as some would have it, a plain infodump). In this novel he concentrates that for a large part in the citizen point of view. The citizen is an observer, as far as we can tell he or she does not play a role in the story. You might even go so far as to say Robinson inserted himself in the novel. The citizen informs us about the state of the city, the economy, the geology and natural history of the region and of course the mechanisms of sea level rise. Saves the characters quite a bit of thinking. I very much doubt it is going to convince the people who don't like Robinson's style, but it is certainly an interesting experiment.

The question of how we should shape our world and society often comes up in Robinson's work. It goes all the way back to the Orange County triptych. In these novels there is almost always a sense of optimism. There are ideas to make the world better, technology is there or can be developed, there are people willing to throw themselves into it, and there is enough common sense not to turn away from a problem. If, for instance, climate change cannot be prevented, we can at least mitigate it and adapt to the new circumstances. In this novel, the sense that humanity is willingly doing something dreadfully stupid prevails. There is a sense of disbelief and irritation at the continuous cycle of bubbles and busts that does so much damage to society.

Over the course of the book the citizen gets angrier and angrier. His main argument is that the global economic system heavily favours those possessing extreme wealth while making life unnecessarily  hard on everybody else. The book illustrates this by a look into the world of finance. He details how capital tends to accumulate with those that already have a lot and how, at some point, money is not invested back into the real economy but rather funnelled into what its detractors call the casino economy. Speculating on indexes, derivatives and the like. In this way, capital becomes detached from the physical reality of the world, yet the bubbles it creates (and busts) still have a significant impact on society. The citizen can't help but wonder why the vast majority of people put up with this blatant bit of tyranny. With another bubble popped, even for the people in the capital of capital, enough is enough. The minute chance of becoming filthy rich is not worth the misery it imposes on others. Revolution is brewing.

What is most striking about the economics in the novel, is the way one of the characters thinks about investment and how it is a sin to sink money into a specific project rather than 'keeping it liquid' and moving it around to where the most profit is to be made. As many other reviewers point out there is a parallel between the way water behaves in the novel and how capital flows. Throughout the novel various economists appear to be looking over the shoulder of the characters. Not surprisingly, Keynes is the most prominent among them. The novel frequently refers back to the great depression. Robinson criticises Ben Bernanke, and implicitly the European Central Bank for the quantitative easing and bailing out of banks going down in a self-inflicted bust. The capital pumped into the system does not trickle down, so he argues, but only serves to fuel the next bubble. It is, he feels, not worth the austerity policies necessary to service the public debt. To break the cycle of bubble and bust, one of the characters suggest Piketty-ing the tax system, a form of progressive tax making it virtually impossible to live on capital gains alone. Given the way global politics are developing, it may well be another century before that happens.

Robinson may have shifted his attention a bit compared to other books, New York 2140 is nevertheless a fine example of his writing. Socially engaged, well researched and infused with a great sense of location. Whatever you may think of his view on the world, he manages to get it across in a fascinating way. It is another way of looking at a set of challenges humanity faces. Although he revisits themes he has covered before, you can't say Robinson is repeating himself. It is always building on what has gone before, adding a new angle or refinement to his world view. I greatly enjoyed reading it. In a way it is as controversial as Aurora, knocking around the idea of the American Dream a bit. As such, it will divide readers. When reading Kim Stanley Robinson, this is as it should be.

Book Details
Title: New York 2140
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
Publisher: Orbit
Pages: 613
Year: 2017
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-356-50875-7
First published: 2017

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Some Strange Desire - Ian McDonald

There are a couple of pretty big novels on my to read list and at the moment I can't seem to manage to read them in a week. To fill the gap I sampled another story from The Best of Ian McDonald, a collection published by PS Publishing last year. Originally published in an Ellen Datlow anthology in 1993, it is a story from fairly early in McDonald's career, and definitely one that attracted attention. McDonald was nominated for the Tiptree and World Fantasy Award for this story. It is a very dark fantasy. Back in the day, this would probably have been marketed as horror. It is definitely disturbing at some level.

The story centres around a group of beings that appear human but are not. They can change their gender at will and, given the right condition, they can live for centuries but to do so, they need human DNA. To acquire  it they enter into a kind of mutually beneficial relationship with human customers. Sexual satisfaction for DNA. It has worked well for centuries. The immune system of this almost human species is nearly indestructible but one disease can kill them. When it strikes, it takes a lot more than a DNA sample to cure the patient.

McDonald walks a fine line in this story. He presents his main character as almost human. Love, anger, fear and other very human emotions play a prominent part in the story and make the reader identify with the main character to an extent. The author suggests in the story that, genetically, the difference between the two species is minimal. The big difference is in their view on human sexuality. For them, it is a means of survival, rather than pleasure. They take a bit of distance from humanity in that respect. Their fluid gender and willingness to go a long with almost any kink, make them popular prostitutes among a certain group of humans. While reading this story I wondered how much it distorted their view on humanity as a whole.

When push comes to shove though, the main character is very aware he (McDonald consistently uses that personal pronoun in the story) is not human. A fact he uses to justify a horrible crime. When the reader reaches that part of the story, the contrast between the loving partner and ruthless predator becomes clear. Survival pushes out all thoughts on how alike they really are. It is our differences that divide us rather than our commonalities that unite us I guess. The balance between companionship and the predator-prey dynamic in the story is very well done. If you like a good horror (or dark fantasy) story you could do worse than Some Strange Desire.

Story Details
Title: Some Strange Desire
Author: Ian McDonald
Language: English
Originally published: Omni SF 3, 1993, edited by Ellen Datlow
Read in: The Best of Ian McDonald, 2016
Story length: Novelette, approximately 8,500 words
Awards: WFA and Tiptree nominated
Available online: Infinity Plus

Monday, April 3, 2017

The Wall of Storms - Ken Liu

The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu is the second volume his Dandileon Dynasty series. It weighs in at nearly 860 pages in hardcover, driving home once again how insanely productive Ken Liu is. This book appeared a year and a half after the first volume. In that space of time Liu also produced a number of translations and short stories. Besides his family and day job of course. I wonder if the man ever sleeps. What Liu seems to have been aiming at in this novel is bigger, better, faster, more, and in many ways that is exactly what it is. If you liked The Grace of Kings, this book will not disappoint.

It has been several years since Kuni Garu betrayed his friend Mata Zyndhu and claimed the throne. His reign is now established, but whether he will be remembered as the founder of a dynasty remains to be seen. The emperor struggles with the conflicting interests of various groups in his empire. Tradition, prejudice and competing interests of various factions in his vast empire keep the emperor from pushing though the reforms he desires. Slowly but surely he tries to create an empire that moves away from the traditional order of things towards a meritocracy. His choice of successor is to be the final move in this development. His plans are soon derailed by internal strife and an invasion from overseas. Beset by enemies o all sides, the continuation of the young dynasty hangs in the balance.

One of the criticisms levelled at the first volume in the series was that the female characters played very modest roles in the novel. Liu changes that around in The Wall of Storms and puts them in the spotlight. Five women from different walks of life pretty much drive the story. Empress Jia is the oldest of them. She is a ruthless politician, the power behind the throne. She also proves herself to be an absolutely horrible human being. Her ambition and sense of duty make her sacrifice everything. One of the interesting aspects of this is the way she accepts that many people would think her inhuman and is willing to let history be her judge. Accepting the consequences of her actions is small comfort to those who lose their lives in her political machinations.

One of those victims is Marshal of the Empire Gin. She is a much better soldier than politician and steps right into the trap Jia sets her. She is too useful to discard however, the empress hasn't foreseen an invasion, and so she lives to fight another war. There is something bitter about Gin. She is uncomfortable in her new role and increasingly suspicious of the imperial court. She needs a cause to fight for and it takes most of the novel before she finds one.

The three other women are of a younger generation and have different outlooks on the  world. Fisherman's daughter and scholar Zomi is one of the few who manages to seize the opportunities the reign of the new emperor offers. Her superior intellect takes her far. There is more than a bit of irony in the fact that her desire to make the lives of ordinary people better makes her end up developing new weapons of war. It also introduces her to Théra, daughter of the emperor. Her life is a struggle against the sexism ingrained in society. She wants to be more than an imperial bargaining chip. The emperor recognizes his daughter's drive and talent but has to move carefully so as not to endanger her. Théra does not share her father's appreciation for the long game however, and soon takes matters in her own hand.

The fifth woman shaping the story is one of the invaders. She grew up among a people shaped by the harsh environment of their homeland. Driven by the need to find a more fertile land, they invade Dara. Her father is the ruler of the invaders and operates by the maxim might makes right. It has shaped her view of the world and forms a stark contrast with the Dara characters, all of whom are exposed to the teachings of the many Daran philosophers. It is a directness that some of the characters who meet her find hard to resist.

Besides these five, there is a large cast of other characters. As with the previous novel, Liu follows events in different locations. I did feel he managed to stay a bit closer to his characters in this novel. The Grace of Kings gave us a great view of what was going on but at times it leaned towards a history more than a novel. In that area, Liu certainly improved. Another thing I liked about the book was the non-linear nature of the narrative. We jump around the timeline of Dara quite a lot to fill in the backstory of some of the characters. It is a very cleverly plotted novel, showing us exactly what we need to know, when we need to know it.

Although the story is partially inspired by one of China's oldest dynasties, Liu introduces a lot of fairly modern science. Characters tinker with electricity, primitive batteries, airships, submersibles and modern biology. Although the gods play their part, for the characters it is technology and strategy that shape the course of the war. I felt that at times Liu did a bit too much explaining of how things worked, slowing down the story perhaps a tad. That being said, the way this war spurs invention and establishes a framework for a modern research institute was fascinating to read.  Whether or not Théra and Zomi succeed in their other exploits, this might well be their legacy.

The Wall of Storms is an epic tale of war, political intrigue and scientific exploration. Betrayal, triumph and the (sometimes not very subtle) intervention of the gods make it a novel that will do well with fans of epic fantasy. It is a story that keeps you reading. Although it is a formidable tome, it reads fairly quickly. The novel is a step up from the first volume, especially in terms of characterization. I enjoyed it more than the first volume in the series. Like The Grace of Kings, this book is recommended reading.

Book Details
Title: The Wall of Storms
Author: Ken Liu
Publisher: Head of Zeus
Pages: 860
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-7849-7325-4
First published: 2016

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Brains of Rats - Michael Blumlein

This is a review of the short story that originally appeared in Interzone in 1986, the same title was later used for a collection, which came out in 1990. The story is included in the enormous anthology The Big Book of Science Fiction (2016), edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, which is where I read it. The story is available to read online at Lightspeed, which published in in the March 2015 issue. It is one of those stories that are hard to categorize. It was nominated for the World Fantasy Award for instance, but some people also think of it as horror. Perhaps that last label is most fitting. The Brains of Rats is a very unsettling tale.

The main character is a doctor and researcher who has the means to influence the gender of unborn children. He could, should he want to, make sure all newborns are male or female. As he thinks over the possibilities this creates, his thoughts touch on genetics, human sexuality, cultural practices and a number of patients he has seen over the course of his career. None of which brings him closer to the answer of how to proceed.

Society has told us for many centuries that gender is binary. You are considered male or female, and raised within a set of rules your culture finds acceptable for your gender. For many people this approximation is comfortable enough, but it has been known for a long time that reality is more complex. In this story Blumlein describes how the genes that make us male or female have not changed much over the course of many million years of evolution, and that they are in fact nearly identical to those of species removed from us by millions of years of evolution. What has changed, so Blumlein tells us, is our brain. Many layers of cognitive development overlay the primitive core that determines sexuality.

The main character feels this rapid evolution of our brain muddies the waters. In his mind, what we think and what society tells us about sexuality and gender is at odds with how the brain functions. The main character sees the divide in our brain reflected in various forms of violence. Ranging from spousal abuse, to  gender equality and the treatment of gender queer people, the story contains countless examples how poorly people treat each other. At one point I felt the main character undercut himself a bit by referring to the myth of the 9th century female pope. Although it has been discredited by modern historians, the story was widely accepted as historical for many centuries, so maybe he has a point there too.

There are two elements of the story that make it somewhat creepy. The first is the way the main character brings up his four year old daughter and compares her innocence to what he sees in the world around him. He reflects on how, even at that age, society is already beginning to excerpt its influence. The other is the detached, analytic tone the main character employs. It is a first person narrative, but very little emotion, apart from a vague sense of confusion, seeps through. He is analysing most of the time, looking for the correct diagnosis, both for himself and the species as a whole, without quite finding one that fits completely. Although the main character is essentially passive throughout the story, his thoughts are most unsettling. The Brains of Rats will definitely make you reconsider your own convictions about  gender and sexuality.

Story Details
Title: The Brains of Rats
Author: Michael Blumlein
Language: English
Originally published: Interzone, #16 Summer 1986
Read in: The Big Book of Science Fiction, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (2016)
Story length: Short Story, approximately 6,500 words
Awards: None
Available online: Lightspeed

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Lord of Emperors - Guy Gavriel Kay

Lord of Emperors, the second book in Guy Gavriel Kay's Sarantine Mosaic duology, is pretty much required reading for people who have read the first volume Sailing to Sarantium. These two books are one long novel rather than two. The first volume leaves the reader with many unanswered questions and dangling plot lines. After rereading this second volume I can't help but wonder what this duology might have been if Kay had approached them as a single novel. As they are, these novels make for fascinating reading but structurally they don't work as well as they should. It bothered me a lot more on this reread, than it did the first time I read these novels in 2006.

Some time after the end of Sailing to Sarantium the emperor is preparing for war. He has set his mind on reconquering Rhodias and restoring the empire to its former glory. To ensure peace in the east, he has bought off the Bassania, and now diverts funds from the east to finance his expeditionary force. Not everybody feels the emperor's ambitions are achievable, or even a good idea. Plots are brewing in the court, and in the east things are not as quiet as one might wish. While the court plots and manoeuvres, mosaicist Crispin is busy decorating the dome of the emperor's recently finished sanctuary of the sun god Jad. Soon events in the world will distract him from his great work. History approaches another turning point.

Sailing to Sarantium more or less follows history as we know it. Kay moves a few events a bit to better fit the story (most notably the construction of the Hagia Sophia) but not the major flow of history. The climax of the novel is a retelling of the Nika riots that rocked Constantinople in 532 AD. In Lord of Emperors Kay rewrites history completely. It would spoil much of the plot to go into detail here but the invasion of Batiara (Italy) does not go as planned. One of the changes that are of minor importance to the plot, is the rise of a new prophet who will give rise to the Asharite religion. This analogue of Mohammed shows up a few decades earlier than in our timeline. Another nice historical touch is Crispus finding the secret history of Pertiunius (Procopius of Caesarea), in which he details the supposed perversions of the empress.

Most of the cast is familiar, the novel introduces only one major new player. The Bassanid doctor Rustem is sent by his king to Sarantium to spy. He is not cut out to be one however, most of his time is spent being a doctor. He doesn't seem to hold with the western way of healing based on Galenus (Kay gave him another name which I can't remember). Historically, he is the figure who promoted much of Hippocrates' views on medicine, views that would remain influential until the renaissance, but were not particularly likely to improve the patient's chances of survival. He also provides a link to Kay's novel The Lions of Al-Rasan (1995), which is set some six centuries later in Esperaňa/Al-Rasan (Spain/Al-Andalus).

Kay's fascination with the history of the Byzantine empire doesn't end with this novel. He covers some of the same ground in his most recent book Children of Earth and Sky (2016). That novel is set after the fall  of the empire, but its presence can still be felt in many of the details of the story. The links between the books, almost all of them little things, is what makes rereading these novels a joy. While I felt he was getting a bit too comfortable with his Mediterranean settings, you can't help but admire his grasp of history.

Given the fact that it is a Byzantine inspired novel, it will come as no surprise that the plot revolves around an attempt to get rid of the emperor. As such, it is not the most original of stories. The characters Kay employs are well drawn, but more or less what you'd expect to find in such a story. Their talents and beauty are extraordinary, their sins and perversions grotesque, their flaws and mistakes spectacular. All means to achieve the goal are considered justified, including murder, intimidation and seduction. All of this is related to the reader by Kay's trademark omniscient narrator. This narrator creates a bit of distance between the reader and the events in the novel, and a sense of inevitability, that drains some of the tension from the story.

That sense of inevitability doesn't do the story any good in the final quarter of the novel. The climax of the novel comes fairly early on, after which events unfold more or less predictably. There is a wave of resignation washing over the story in the final 150 or so pages. The plot falls neatly into place, the flow of history resumes unhindered because it is too costly to resist its current. Kay ties up all the major story lines nicely but I couldn't shake the feeling that the novel petered out a bit.

Lord of Emperors offers everything a reader might wish from a Guy Gavriel Kay novel. Beautiful language, an eye for historical detail, the drama of history unfolding through the eyes of large and small players. I greatly enjoyed the setting in particular. The story itself is appropriately Byzantine, but in its treatment of his characters, the female ones in particular, it is perhaps a bit over the top. The slow afterburn that concludes the novel doesn't do it any favours either. All things considered it is a good but not exceptional novel.

Book Details
Title: Lord of Emperors
Author: Guy Gavriel Kay
Publisher: Eos
Pages: 560
Year: 2001
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-06-102002-8
First published: 2000